Book Review: Sex & Cigarettes
By Labanya Maitra
Hair blowing in the wind, a cigarette clenched between her lips, Daniella stares right down the barrel of the lens, gently cupping her breast. The photograph is both fierce and soft.
We are so used to viewing women as either the powerhouse, working woman, steadfast and strong, or the soft maternal figure, gentle and kind, that we often forget that both exist in every woman. She is not defined by her perception in society, she is defined by the infinite worlds that exist within her. And these worlds are what Daniella Midenge captures in her book, Sex & Cigarettes.
It’s confusing at first, as societal conditioning dictates. Are these photographs erotic? Do they have a hidden artistic agenda? These questions resolve themselves as you flip through the pages. The book is about the female nude, yes. But it’s more than that. Midenge captures the women as the true self that they choose to present to her – naked, coy, clothed, fierce, all of it.
The portraits in the book change with the changing women in them. It seems as though long shots of them fully clothed evolve into close-ups of their nipples, stoic faces are followed by close-ups of laughter, followed by close-ups of tears. The sexual aspect of the photographs varies from woman to woman, just as it does in real life. These women, their lips – they bite and they smile. Their hands, they touch and they grab – themselves, each other, and you.
What’s striking, however, is Midenge’s use of color. And the absence of it. It becomes apparent almost immediately that this book isn’t about maintaining a color scheme. Rather, it’s about hero-ing the self-expression of the women photographed. They come in bright and happy yellows and blues, seductive reds, they traverse through the spectrum and take pit stops as monochromes.
A photographer and model, Midenge does the pre-production, shoot and post-production of her photographs herself. As someone who is comfortable both in front of and behind the camera, she has a way of capturing her subjects at their ease. There aren’t a lot of cigarettes in the book and there isn’t much sex either, but the essence of it is thick in the air; hinting at you, daring you to see them for who they really are.
Some of the photographs, either intentionally or unintentionally, challenge the conditioning that exists around us. All the women have names, all of these photographs, raunchy or otherwise, belong to real people. And they have meaning.
Rachel is photographed in a wedding dress, virginal and white, complete with white gloves and a large, ornate ring. The dress is pulled down as Rachel grabs her breasts with both hands, hunching forward. Is it empowering and strong, or sexual and inappropriate? Well, I think it’s all of it, just like her. And that’s the beauty of this book.